Sunday book review – Winter Birds by Lars Jonsson

Reviewed by Ian Carter

When I was first getting interested in wildlife in the 1980s, Lars Jonsson was seen almost as a cult figure by young birders. He had published a series of slimline fieldguides based on different habitats (mountains, sea coast etc) and these were later updated and amalgamated into one book covering all birds in Europe. He was able to paint birds in a way that no-one else could, capturing their characteristics so well it seemed they might leap off the page at any moment. I knew an impoverished (and normally law abiding) A-level student who dropped one of the early books out of the window of his local library, so desperate was he to own it (and no it wasn’t me – really, it wasn’t).

I still regularly dip into his European fieldguide, first published 25 years ago, and although it might have been overtaken in popularity by more recent works, no other guide gives me as much pleasure to open – partly nostalgia perhaps, but also the beauty of the artwork and the quality of the accompanying text.

Winter Birds is an altogether different type of book. It focuses on 59 species and deals with each in some detail. Many are birds that he sees regularly in winter on and around feeders at his studio on the island of Gotland, southern Sweden, most of which are also common at British bird-tables. He also includes some of the enigmatic species that occur mainly to the north; birds that hold a special appeal to British birdwatchers because of their status as rare visitors to this country, or the fact that they have yet to make it here – birds like the Nutcracker, Siberian Jay, Arctic Redpoll, Waxwing and Black Woodpecker.

The book is as much about his insights into these species as it is about the superb paintings and sketches. As an artist there is an understandable focus on describing the way birds look – the colours, shapes and textures that must be appreciated and understood in order to have a chance of transferring them to the page. The book goes a long way to explaining how he is able to paint birds so well: he looks at them with an attention to detail that, as a non-artist, I find almost impossible to imagine.

Of course, looking closely at birds for long periods also helps to build a picture of their behaviour and there is plenty of insight into that too. He describes the essential character of each species as he sees it – the way birds move around the landscape, what they feed on, the noises they make and how they interact with each other as they strive to come through another winter. He tries to get into their heads; to explain what makes them tick. In doing so, he combines his own observations with knowledge gleaned from the literature to help paint as complete an image as possible. He writes as an ornithologist as well as an artist.

I’ve never met him (so maybe I’m wrong) but he comes across as someone who is utterly content with a life that involves so much time observing wildlife, even after decades of close study. He appears to relish every new encounter with a bird as if he is renewing old acquaintances. The translation from the original Swedish (by David Christie) has done well to retain the very personal feel to the book, including a few quirks and oddities that result from the use of a different language and could easily have been lost with a more officious approach.

This is an engaging book based on a deep, hard-won knowledge of these birds, but it is also a warm and charming book and one that, as with the fieldguide from all those years ago, is a delight to open.

 

Winter Birds by Lars Jonsson is published by Bloomsbury.

 

Remarkable Birds by Mark Avery is published by Thames and Hudson – for reviews see here.

Inglorious: conflict in the uplands by Mark Avery is published by Bloomsbury for reviews see here.

Behind the Binoculars: interviews with acclaimed birdwatchers by Mark Avery and Keith Betton is published by Pelagic – here’s a review and it’s now out in paperback.

Buy books reviewed here from Blackwell’s and Mark Avery will earn a little bit of money too!

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4 Comments

  1. john witty says:

    Should be a good read

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  2. John Cantelo says:

    A friend has the Swedish version which he allowed me to browse and, whilst I cannot comment on the text, I can confirm that the artwork is absolutely exquisite. One of those books where you feel you ought to weight down the front cover for fear of some of the birds inside escaping when you're not looking. On order & eagerly awaiting it's release (on 19/10 I think).

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  3. Jim Clarke says:

    While the taxonomy is now well out of date (at least in the 1999 edition, not sure how much the 2006 edition was updated) and the quality of the paintings is quite variable (ranging from decent to superb, reflecting as it does Lars's development as an artist during the course of the publication of the habitat based series of books before their compilation into a single volume), I'd still thoroughly recommend to anyone getting hold of a secondhand copy of his Birds of Europe. For reference I think it's an great complementary work to the Collins Fieldguide; both Killian Mullarney and Dan Zetterström's paintings are obviously excellent but Lars, at his best, does pip them, particularly in capturing 'character'. Up there with Ian Lewington in my opinion.

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  4. Mike Mills says:

    I'm with you all on your assessment of his work and the Field Guide, he has long been a favourite. I recall dropping into a small Stockholm gallery and being blown away by his larger canvases - justly priced well beyond my means. His Bird Island - pictures from a shoal of sand, was another great concept and portrayal. I'd travel a long way to see more of his work.

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